O Pioneers! Israelis helping Israelis settle in the Bay Area

A few days after moving from Israel to Sunnyvale, Tami Segal hopped in a car and set off on a driving tour of her new neighborhood. But this was no sightseeing trip.

Behind the wheel was an Israeli-born staffer with Ogen Relocation, a company that assists Israelis moving to Silicon Valley. Segal had contacted Ogen prior to the move after her husband accepted a transfer to the Bay Area.

Maya and Doron Kagan with children Shira (front), Yogev and Tom (in dad’s arms) Photo/Joyce Goldschmid

On their drive, rather than point out the famous Google or Facebook campuses and other landmarks, Ogen’s Noa Fridman showed Segal more practical points of interest: T.J. Maxx, a good ice cream shop, pizza joints, a dollar store — all places that would come in handy as Segal eased into South Bay life.

“I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” Segal recalled of that ride-along. “Noa said, ‘We have to do this.’ Then last week a friend came from Israel, and I realized I knew all these places Noa had shown me. I felt familiarized.”

Segal and her family are typical of many Israelis who move to the Bay Area, often to work in the high-tech industry. According to recent estimates from the S.F.-based Israel Consulate, the local expatriate population may be as high as 50,000, including spouses and kids. The biggest concentration is in and around Silicon Valley, especially Sunnyvale, which has earned that city a nickname: The Kibbutz.

Culture shock is a common denominator. Very often, the Israelis come with little knowledge of the strange ways of California. From understanding the real estate market to unraveling the maddening mysteries of the DMV, newbies have a lot to learn.

That’s how Ogen came into existence five years ago. The for-profit business starts preparing newcomers even before they leave Israel. Then, once they get here, staffers help them find a nice place to live, a good school for the kids and more.

“We wanted to help these families,” Aya Levkovitz, who formed Ogen with business partner Yael Halperin, said about the company’s genesis. Levkovitz, who came here with her husband, Zohar, nearly 10 years ago, says she would have benefited from such support and wanted to offer it to other Israelis who have come after her. “There are so many questions. We want to help them feel secure.”

Yael Halperin and Aya Levkovitz of Ogen.

Before launching Ogen, Levkovitz spent four years as director of Israeli House, a program of the Israel Consulate that fosters Israeli culture for those living abroad. Part of her mission was to help expats in the Bay Area feel more connected to each other and, when they are ready to return to Israel, to assist with some of the logistics.

But many working in the region, including Levkovitz and her family, never move back. Rather, the Israeli population here has continued to grow. Thus Ogen is part of a constellation of agencies, companies and individuals helping newly arrived Israelis navigate Bay Area life.

There’s the Hebrew-speaking real estate agent who steers her Israeli clients to housing. There’s the volunteer who helps Israeli expats stay in touch via text on WhatsApp. There’s the Hebrew-language book club coordinator who makes sure stay-at-home moms get out once in a while.

And there’s Ronit Jacobs, who runs the Israeli Cultural Connection, a program of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Now in its seventh year, the ICC not only offers advice and outreach, it provides a space where Israelis can attend lectures and classes, mix and mingle, speak Hebrew and build community.

A native Israeli, Jacobs moved to the Bay Area in 2000. She’s bilingual and bicultural and has dedicated herself to helping expat Israelis stick what she calls “a soft landing.”

Of the many challenges recent transplants face, in Jacobs’ opinion, social isolation tops the list.

“Being away from family is huge,” Jacobs said. “Israelis come from a small country and everyone stays in touch. Going to a place where you don’t know anybody and don’t have family is huge. We try to be the home away from home for them. That helps. They know they can turn to us and get support when they need it.”

Jacobs created programs to help newcomers. One of them, called 100 Chairs, connects Israeli and American families on the High Holy Days and Passover. The ICC also offers a course on creating a proper American résumé and getting into the local job market.

“Many people tell us how nervous they were,” Jacobs notes. “We have Israelis, usually the spouses, either trying to find a job or who don’t know what to do.”

Tami Segal

The ICC also set up Hebrew-language Facebook pages. One, called Pay It Forward, is a giveaway clearinghouse of furnishings, toys, kitchen equipment and other stuff for anyone who wants them. And ICC organized the text messaging group because, as Jacobs explains, “WhatsApp is how Israelis converse. Everybody here lives on WhatsApp.”

Among the most ambitious local events staged for the benefit of new arrivals is the annual Open Door gathering. Co-sponsored by Ogen and the ICC, Open Door invites the Israelis to meet with experts in banking, education and other topics they need to know about.

More than 50 recent arrivals came to Open Door 2016, held at the JCC in Palo Alto on Aug. 14. There they took their first steps in learning the rudiments of middle-class American life.

Maya and Doron Kagan, along with their three children, got to the JCC a bit late for Open Door. After all, they had landed in California only five days before, and jet lag left them a little bleary. But they were still in a self-described euphoria about their new start in the Bay Area.

The couple founded Deemedya, a video game company responsible for Trial Xtreme, which has logged millions of downloads. They built their company in Tel Aviv and now, with their move to Palo Alto, they’re knocking on the door of Silicon Valley.

Ronit Jacobs

“Amazing!” said Doron Kagan when asked how he likes California so far. “Everything is falling together as it should.”

Ogen helped the Kagans find a house before they arrived and handed them a folder full of forms to get them started: Social Security application, DMV forms and the like. And they found an elementary school for their older children, Shira, 11, and Yogev, 8.

How will the kids handle learning English? “It’s their problem now,” their father said. “The only thing we can do is prepare them and help them adapt to changes.”

The kids may be on their own with English, but their parents are relying on Ogen to guide them through the obstacle course of American life: obtaining car insurance, opening a bank account, choosing a doctor and, of course, landing a cable TV package that includes an Israeli soccer channel.

“We work differently from other relocation companies,” Levkovitz said. “We work [with clients] until they really feel they are ready. We connect them with other families in Israel who are also about to arrive. Once they’re here, the kids know each other. We explain what to expect, how to involve the kids in the process.”

For Sergey Golman, packing up and moving thousands of miles from home is old hat.

Banner for Open Door program at the Oshman Family JCC photos/joyce goldschmid

The first time, he emigrated with his family from Russia to Israel in the 1990s. And though he later married, had two kids and built a career as a software engineer in Israel, he signed up to move again, this time accepting a transfer to Qualcomm’s San Jose headquarters.

The Golmans arrived in their new Sunnyvale home at the end of June and, like the Segals, turned to Ogen and the ICC for help.

“The logistics [of the move] were the easier part,” Golman says. “Since it was an intracompany transition, almost everything was taken care of, like paying for airline tickets and moving costs. But stuff like finding a home for the first year, schools and a place to take care of the kids were the most challenging parts.”

Though he works for an American company and had visited the United States before, he said living here requires an adjustment. Golman has spotted many differences between life in Israel and the Bay Area.

For one, he’s amused by the American knack for specialty stores. “You get your veggies here, your regular groceries there, and bulk items over there,” he says. “In Israel, that’s uncommon.”

Another difference is in how it feels on Fridays and Saturdays. “In Israel it’s not like life shuts down on weekends, but it is the Sabbath and people work less. So the feeling of the weekend is different,” Golman said.

“The biggest challenge for us has been to integrate the kids and ourselves socially,” he added. “This was the main reason we worked with Ogen. We wanted to make sure we were acquainted with the Israeli community here.”

Ogen and the ICC are not the only entities lending a hand. The consulate’s Israeli House is one of a dozen around the country that promote Israeli cultural events and reach out to expats.

banking workshop presented by Ori Kaufman Gafter of Bank Leumi USA

Carmit Palty Katzir now runs the local Israeli House. She says new arrivals most frequently inquire about finding schools, Hebrew-language programs for their children and community events of interest. She keeps them informed via her monthly email newsletter.

One of the “burning issues,” as she puts it, is helping the spouses of transferred Israeli workers or students find a job. Often accomplished professionals back in Israel, they may face difficulties once they arrive in the Bay Area.

“Some can get visas, but not all of them,” Katzir said. “If they are on a green card route it can take more than a year. If they’re here on a tourist visa, then no.”

When Levkovitz worked at Israeli House, she said there was no mandate to urge expats to return to Israel. In 2011, however, Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption mounted an ad campaign directed at Israelis in several cities, including Palo Alto, with billboards reading, “Before Hanukkah turns into Christmas, it’s time to come back to Israel,” or “Before Abba turns into Daddy, it’s time to come back to Israel.”

Some were offended by the perceived warnings against Americanization. The billboards became controversial and were taken down after two months.

In reality, Israelis come to Silicon Valley not only to further their own careers but to further the success of Israeli high-tech, as well. As long as Israelis keep coming, their friends in the community will help them adjust.

Anette Saxe

At the ICC’s Open Door meeting this month, some 40 families showed up. An Israeli-born accountant led a workshop in filing taxes. Ori Kaufman Gafter, a vice president at Bank Leumi USA, talked about banking American style, her rapid-fire Hebrew peppered with English terms such as “credit history” and “FICO score.”

Israeli-born Anette Saxe, a principal in the Fremont Unified School District, gave parents a rundown on American education, explaining the differences between charter schools and magnet schools, the purpose of Back to School Night, and how parents will be on the hook to purchase P.E. clothes for their kids.

Saxe, who came to the United States at age 12, works closely with Ogen to help the recent arrivals because she knows how they feel. “The greatest thing I can help with is the transition,” said Saxe. “I’m the only Israeli-born school principal around. This is a way I can give back.”

Looking on was Gershon Diner, a Palo Alto software engineer for an Israeli startup. He has lived here for three years and knows exactly what the newcomers are going through. He showed up to Open Door to offer his help and experience.

Gershon Diner

“We started out not as hard-core users of the JCC our first year,” he said, “but by the second year we were heavily involved. We’re lucky to have the ICC. My son goes to the afterschool program. The environment is safe and the staff is amazing.”

Diner says the biggest difference he noticed between the Israeli and American schools was the general politeness of American kids. “The first thing you notice in class here is it’s quiet,” he noted. “All contribute.”

After the Open Door workshops, everyone gathered in the JCC open space for pizza and kibitzing. As the kids ran around, organizers reflected on the next steps for new arrivals, especially the nonworking spouse.

“It’s a cultural shock, but they get over it quickly,” Levkovitz said. “We tell them, for the first year enjoy and relax. Take this year to help the kids with their relocation. It’s a full-time job. Don’t ask right away, what am I going to do? Try to find some opportunity. You can volunteer, go to school, or do anything you didn’t have a chance to do in Israel.”

After only five days in the United States, Maya Kagan does not appear worried about whether things will work out for her business, her family or herself.

“I feel at home,” she said at the pizza party, surrounded by dozens of fellow new arrivals. “Israel is a very warm place and our start here is even warmer.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.